Pearson’s Former Product Chief Reflects on the 4 Megatrends Shaping...

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Pearson’s Former Product Chief Reflects on the 4 Megatrends Shaping Global Education

By Luyen Chou     Jul 31, 2018

Pearson’s Former Product Chief Reflects on the 4 Megatrends Shaping Global Education
Trilogy Education Chief Product Officer, Luyen Chou

I started working with classroom technology in 1989 at The Dalton School in New York City. We taught sixth-grade students ancient history through an archaeology simulation we developed on black-and-white Macintosh computers. We explored new planetary nebulas by scanning digital images from the Hubble telescope.

Since then, I’ve built award-winning educational CD-ROMs, led the development of formative assessment, curriculum management, and student data systems like Schoolnet and Powerschool, and most recently, managed strategy for Pearson’s $6 billion global product portfolio as its chief product strategy officer. These experiences have offered me an opportunity to learn a great deal about the state of education around the world.

During those years, I’ve been struck by how universally education is understood to be the key to attainment. Yet at the same time, I was also dismayed by the enormous challenges many learners face just trying to gain access to affordable, basic, high-quality education. Even in markets where access to learning is readily available, I’ve watched the gap widen between what students are taught, and what they really need to be successful in today’s world.

Now, as I begin a new journey overseeing product for Trilogy Education, I want to share some of my biggest takeaways. These are the megatrends that make me so excited about the road ahead:

1. Education is adapting to a world of constant change

It’s been said that Francis Bacon was the last person to know everything. Whether or not this is true (it’s not), the underlying reality is that for much of human history, education meant mastering a finite and unchanging set of knowledge and skills.

Obviously, this is no longer the case. In the early 1980’s Buckminster Fuller observed that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II, it was doubling every twenty-five years. Today, by current estimates, human knowledge is doubling every thirteen months. This trend is likely to continue; experts at IBM have hypothesized that knowledge could double every 12 hours as the internet of things grows.

Not only does this mean knowledge itself is expanding exponentially, but that the knowledge and skills we learned in the past and count on in our lives are becoming obsolete at an increasing rate. Our basic understanding of science, mathematics, humanities and the social sciences is being reshaped at a dizzying pace. Art and culture are undergoing constant transformation. Even the English language is changing and evolving faster than it ever has in its history.

There are at least three important consequence of this new reality for education:

We find ourselves needing to retool and upskill throughout our careers and lives in order to stay productive and relevant.

Though it seemed hyperbolic at the time, I’m sure most chief technology officers today would concur with Sun Microsystems’ co-founder Scott McNealy’s contention nearly two decades ago that, unless refreshed, the value of an engineer’s knowledge diminishes by 25 percent per year. Think of it as the human inversion of Moore’s Law. Your knowledge of COBOL or Fortran (or maybe even Ruby) won’t do you much good if you’re looking for a software engineering job today (though in fairness some have found ways to capitalize on the scarcity created by obsolescence).

Not only do we need to upskill in our current jobs, but we need to be mindful that the jobs that really matter in an era of automation and artificial intelligence may not be those that we think they are.

You might be interested to find that teaching, health and hospitality services, and food preparation top the list of critical professions in 2030—along with the more obvious ones like software engineering, data science, and cyber security. Traditional educational providers as a whole have struggled to refocus on the skills that will really matter for today’s learners as they embark on their careers.

Most importantly, in a time of accelerated change, we truly need to address the most fundamental skills.

I don’t mean the “three R’s,” but the more essential skills of resilience, growth mindset, and lifelong learning. Today, change is the only constant. Those who ultimately succeed will embrace this constant change, and realize that their determination and ability to apply their knowledge and understanding to novel circumstances is what will help them advance.

The underlying need for lifelong learning—not as some abstract humanistic ideal, but as an essential prerequisite for individual fulfillment and attainment—is what makes education the most important and valuable industry in today’s knowledge economy. But only if it can redefine its underlying value proposition. Which brings me to...

2. ‘ROL’ — Return on Learning

According to UNESCO, by 2030, the world will add 120 million new students seeking access to higher education, including a 50 percent increase in pupils seeking education outside their home countries. That’s six times the total number of higher education students in the U.S. today. Most of these new students will be from parts of the developing world that are experiencing explosive growth in middle-class income and aspirations (primarily China and India).

For most of this next generation of learners, higher education won’t just be about learning for learning’s sake, or an anachronistic belief that a college degree on its own will guarantee gainful employment. Students will more than ever be focused on the “return on learning.” Specifically, how does the investment I make in my education today lead to future achievement, fulfillment and happiness—especially at a time of unprecedented levels of student debt and rising costs of college education?

This means learners will become increasingly sophisticated shoppers, and that education will become an increasingly data-driven market, helping students find programs and institutions that deliver the best results.

3. The trusted role of traditional education institutions

Largely in response to the two points above, the past years have seen enormous growth in alternative educational providers, from code academies to boot camps to online learning communities. But the track record of these options has been mixed at best, as evidenced by the recent trend of boot camps going out of business.

Many of the new players in the alternative education space have accurately perceived the trends discussed above, but also have underestimated the challenge of operating high-quality educational programs, and the continuing importance of a recognized credential.

Despite the incredible pace of change in education, society continues to exhibit a deeper trust in the institutions that have long histories dedicating themselves to advancing students’ lives through learning. The value of a credential from Columbia University or Georgia Tech or Berkeley or UCLA has been remarkably durable despite the seismic changes in education in recent years.

But as the pace of change accelerates, and as learners become increasingly focused on “ROL,” these trusted institutions will need to adjust to maintain their enduring importance in our society by retooling to focus on the skills that students really need today to be successful in life. This is not to say traditional universities should eschew their legacy academic programs to focus purely on employable skills. The truly unique value of our best institutions of higher education is the broad and varied academic and social experience they provide their students. By augmenting their programs with a focus on employable skills, these institutions can provide students not only with the tools to be career ready, but with the knowledge, wisdom, and love of learning that are required to be truly successful in life.

4. The role of technology

If it’s true that we will see 120 million new higher education learners over the next decade—or even if it‘s half or a third of that—the sobering reality is that there simply aren’t enough classrooms around the world in which to teach them. This is why over the next several years we will see a massive increase in online learning.

Technology is the only viable way to scale the serious capacity and affordability issues we face in education. But while capacity and scale will drive widespread adoption, it’s the ability of technology to make learning far more engaging, connected, creative, personalized, and data-driven that suggests we may be on the cusp of fundamentally revolutionizing education.

Compared to what early edtech champions had to work with decades ago, the new technologies we are starting to use in education seem like science fiction. This summer, Pearson and IBM launched a pilot of a Watson-powered AI virtual tutor to assist college students studying sociology, government, and public speaking. While I don’t believe we should or even could replace human instructors with machines in the foreseeable future, the prospect of augmenting educators’ ability to help many more students across the globe to progress in their learning is incredibly exciting and will have a profound impact on improving education at scale.

My strong conviction, based on my experience over the past few years working on global education product strategy, is that it’s at the intersection of these trends that the most exciting opportunity lies—for learners, educators and entrepreneurs. Companies operating at the center of this intersection have the greatest chance to truly revolutionize teaching and learning at global scale.

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